Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
It remains a mystery how Joe Strummer, a key architect of one of the greatest UK punk bands — many would claim the best, bar none — could have floundered, at least commercially, in his post-Clash career.
It didn’t help that Cut The Crap, the group’s final non-Mick Jones assisted album from 1985, was an unfortunately weak end to a brilliant and hugely influential six-album run. Or that Strummer’s first official release under his name, Earthquake Weather, arrived a full four years after the quartet disintegrated. It’s likely most fans of the Clash couldn’t tell you how many solo Strummer albums there were or the name of his Mescaleros backing unit. So if any artist’s solo career is ripe for re-evaluation it’s Joe Strummer’s. And the expertly compiled 001 (a reference to his pre-Clash outfit the 101ers, two songs of which open this double disc) is a near perfect compilation of his work away from The Clash, much of it previously unreleased and/or difficult to find.
At a sprawling 35 tracks spread out over two discs and a 7” single encompassing nearly 2 ½ hours of playing time, there is a lot of mostly great music to discover. Strummer was nothing if not eclectic, and much of that musical diversity works its way through these songs. From the 101ers’ rockabilly, to reggae/dub, world music, pure country, Latin beats, traditional Irish folk (he fronted The Pogues for a tour) and powerful duets with Johnny Cash (a moving cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) and Jimmy Cliff (a tough ballad “Over the Border” from Cliff’s obscure 2004 Black Magic), 001 presents a vibrant, often revelatory picture of Strummer’s talents as a riveting frontman, gutsy singer, eclectic songwriter and genre pushing artist. There’s also an album’s worth of hitherto unavailable tunes, some fascinating demos and the ten minute rocker “US North,” produced by Mick Jones in 1986.
Little of this is up to the classic quality of his Clash work. But that’s a high bar and much, such as 1988’s percussive “Trash City,” isn’t far off that mark. There’s an edgy rough recording of “This is England,” arguably the finest cut on the Clash’s Cut The Crap swan song. The incisive “London Is Burning,” here as a 1984 demo and much rawer than the finished version with the Mescaleros, seems like a diamond in the rough that might have easily fit on a Clash album.
Detailed track annotation provides most of the necessary information and only the lack of comprehensive liner notes putting this music into the chronological arc of Strummer’s career and filling in backing historical information is missing. For Clash fans that lost the map on their frontman, this is an eye-opening, expertly cherry-picked set of rarities, deep album selections, demos (many with just drum machine accompaniment), singles and soundtrack work, lots of which went unnoticed by ardent Clash followers.
By compiling these often difficult to find sides, we get an intimate glimpse into talents of Joe Strummer many haven’t heard before. If anything it makes his untimely 2002 death at just age 50 even more tragic. But at least we have his music, and the stunning 001 is a near perfect summation of it. Hal Horowitz